Updated | Gozo tunnel requires national consensus, leaders agree

Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil agree that tunnel cannot be introduced at the expense of ferry service • Geologist warns feasibility study into tunnel could take up to eight years 

The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have committed themselves to the project of a tunnel linking Gozo and Malta, which will not be introduced at the expense of the Gozo Channel ferry.

Addressing a conference organised by Front Favur il-Mina, prime minister Joseph Muscat and opposition leader Simon Busuttil also insisted that the tunnel required national consensus. Muscat added that the project would however require “Gozo leadership”.

The Chinese government had made a multi-million offer for a bridge project, which was eventually not selected.

Muscat said that the study made for this project had gathered useful information and economist Gordon Cordina had used the study as a basis for his report on the tunnel project.

“Three scenarios are feasible, but a tunnel was adjudged the best option.”

The government is in the final stages of preparing a tender with Transport Malta to choose the consultants for the geological studies. There will be an open call and this will lead to the conclusion of these studies.

Cordina’s report covered the social and economic aspect, but the environmental aspect was still to be addressed, however. Considerations include the start and end point of the tunnel, the fate of the debris from the excavation and the effect of seabed fauna.

An EU directive imposes the condition that if 10% of the algae in the area is affected, the project would not be allowed to go ahead.

"There should be a discussion on what type of tunnel should be constructed, whether only for cars or for a metro or maybe both," the Prime Minister said.

Muscat warned, however that the wider the requirements, the larger the need for strategic environmental assessments and the sense of urgency and immediacy he felt from the Gozitans would be sidelined.

Muscat said he was “laying his cards on the table,” saying that he would prefer a public-private partnership.

"It is a mistake to think that a tunnel would be free of charge. There must be some form of a toll to generate income and interest from the private sector. Without it in my opinion this project will not take place."

Muscat said he doubted the feasibility of the solely Government-funded option.

“The Gozo Channel must continue to be viable as a means to an end not an end in itself. It is needed for cargo and as an alternative route. Right now discussions are underway for the introduction of a fast ferry between the islands.

“Gozo simply could not wait several years for something to happen. The fast ferry project must be completed."

He agreed that this should be a national project but with one provision: the leadership should be Gozitan.

“Outsiders have a romantic notion that things should not change. I slept over and caught the 5am ferry - the commotion is unbelievable. The queues you would only expect in an American metropolis at peak time. 99% of the Maltese have not seen this scene and therefore cannot empathise or understand this need.”

On his part, Busuttil said he agreed that this would be a national project.

"Linking the two major islands cannot be seen as from one island only. This is a dream of many people but now there is a clear movement. Consensus is needed for this project to succeed. Anything that threatens this must be avoided,” he said.

Busuttil pointed out that shadow Gozo minister Chris Said had mooted the idea of a tunnel in 2012 but the new government had instead started thinking about a bridge.

"The first thing we need therefore is to have a consensus on the project. It makes a lot of sense to have continuity built on consensus to cater for changes in government.”

While the project it is still in the studies stage, Busuttil said that he also believes that a study should be carried out as to what type of project is needed; whether the tunnel should only lead to Mgarr, or also link Victoria to Valletta or to university. The possibility of a national underground project should also be explored, Busuttil suggested.

Also important is to ensure that the tunnel will not “be simply exporting the Maltese traffic problem to Gozo.”

The PN is in favour of the tunnel project and was “ready to give its support to the necessary studies and have discussions with government to ensure that if there is a change in government down the line, the project will not suffer for it.”

‘Geological feasibility study could take up to eight years’

Geologist Peter Gatt warned the conference that a proper geological feasibility of the project could take between five and eight years to complete.

If so, that could turn the entire tunnel project into a race against time – as the three Gozo ferries will have to be decommissioned by 2030 at the latest, according to projections by economist Gordon Cordina.

Cordina conservatively predicts that the ferry fleet replacement will cost €120 million, with maintenance and fuel costs estimated at a further €21 million a year.

Gozo Channel chairman Joe Cordina told the conference point-blank that his company does not have enough money to replace the three ships, or for that matter to add new ships to the current fleet.

Gozo Tourism Authority chief executive Joe Muscat called for social studies on the impact of a tunnel to tourism trends to the island.

“Will Gozo become a day trip destination? Will tourists spend more nights at Gozitan hotels? Remember that half of Gozo’s GDP comes from tourism…”

However, he said that Gozo will certainly “lose its character” without the tunnel – due to the brain-drain of its residents to Malta.

Gozo Business Chamber president Michael Grech said that the majority of Gozitan businesses are in favour of a tunnel between the two islands.

“There is already a queue of foreign consortia who are interested in the tunnel project and who had spoken to government. If the government were to issue an expression of interest was made, the queue of interested parties would stretch all around Castille.”